Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

"Security Here Is Not Safe": Violence, Punishment, and Space in the Contemporary US Penitentiary

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

"Security Here Is Not Safe": Violence, Punishment, and Space in the Contemporary US Penitentiary

Article excerpt

Introduction

On 5 May 2011, Alexander M Shoemaker, a nineteen-year-old inmate of the Union County Jail in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, who is serving a two-and-half-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter of his sixteen-year-old friend, made local headlines for his request to a judge that he be moved from the county jail to the state prison. "There's so much more to do" in state prison, Shoemaker argued at his hearing, "I'd be around more people for a change. There's sports leagues, a bunch of different things to do." The incredulous judge denied the request: "Prison is no place you want to go", he announced. "If you think it is a place you can hang out, do your own thing and play in sports leagues, you are totally clueless" (Moore, 2011).

We in the central Pennsylvania Middle District are unfortunately home to one of the highest concentrations of correctional facilities anywhere in the United States, with thirty- four county jails, eleven state prisons, and eight federal corrections facilities--with more planned. (1) Among the Middle District prisons is the United States federal penitentiary in Lewisburg (hereafter USP Lewisburg). This penitentiary was built in 1932 during the 'reform craze' in US prisonization (Johnston, 2000; Lasansky, 2005), and offered many of the spaces and activities that the naive Shoemaker would have, however misguidedly, appreciated: it featured basketball courts and a baseball diamond, a gymnasium, a well stocked library, a theater, metal factory, working farm, and hospital.

Fast forward through decades of mass incarceration to 2008, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) began the transformation of USP Lewisburg from a regular penitentiary to the first four-step Special Management Unit (SMU) prison of its kind in the country. This 'model' SMU program is the latest manifestation of the BOP's attempt to enclose and contain in one place federal inmates from around the country whom it deems the most troublesome (typically those identified as gang leaders). Among other things the SMU features double celling of inmates in tiny cells, in 23-hour or 24-hour a day lockdown. Not only do the former 'community' spaces within the prison serve no current purpose as they sit virtually empty, but the cellblocks themselves, under the SMU philosophy and practice, have become spaces of unprecedented fear, terror, violence, and death. Within the first year of the SMU operation over forty inmate assaults occurred that were serious enough to be reported by the BOP--that number rose to 478 by mid-2011--and five inmates suffered violent deaths: two by suicide; two murdered by other inmates; and one due to staff mismanagement--the spraying of pepper spray into the cell of an asthmatic inmate to break up a suspected assault.

What ideologies and practices have been built into the prison, and how have these changed over time? This paper traces the spatial and penal logic of USP Lewisburg from a facility built in 1932 to accommodate reform and rehabilitation of inmates, to one that today facilitates only punishment and violence. As outlined below, US prisons began moving away from the modern rehabilitation model from the 1970s onward--in ideology, in structure, and through massive expenditures--towards increased lockdown to control exponentially expanding numbers of prisoners. The current retrofitting of USP Lewisburg as an SMU manifests many of the conditions of the premodern prison that had been abandoned, at least at the level of ideology if not in practice, in the 19th century (Foucault, 1977). Yet what emerges in the supermax generally and Lewisburg SMU specifically is what we might call a late-modern prison. As Rhodes (2009, page 194) puts it, the supermax and control prison of today represent the inevitable "evolution and intensification" of enclosure that followed the mass incarceration trends that began thirty-plus years ago. Thus the study of the supermax and SMU allows for an analysis of the (nonsequential) mixing of prison typologies--premodern, modern, and late modern--both in terms of form of punishment and in terms of the function of the prison itself (Foucault, 1977; see also Alford, 2000; Hallsworth, 2005). …

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